Civic

Plowshares/Pruning Hooks a Federal Matter

Selling points for Pratt & Whitney economic development incentive package shown during commissioners’ meeting.

Asheville

The Buncombe County Commissioners  agreed to a $27 million tax abatement agreement with Pratt & Whitney after about 30 citizens complained they did not want local government enabling a multimillion multinational manufacturer of tools of war.

The Buncombe County Commissioners heard an earful in a strange plot twist in the practice of awarding economic development incentives. At their meeting two weeks prior, they announced their intention to award up to $27,000,000 over a 14-year term to Pratt & Whitney (P&W). Payment would be in exchange for P&W deciding to locate a one-million square-foot facility in the area with an investment of $650,000,000 and the creation of 800 jobs with an average salary of $68,000, for which P&W would work with A-B Tech to train local talent. P&W was described as a Fortune 500 company with 40,000 employees and annual revenue of $42,000,000,000 in 2019.

It is standard operating procedure for exercises like this to pass without a blink, only pausing for elected officials and corporate executives to drone, “This is exciting.” This time, however, almost thirty people managed to navigate the commissioners’ new rules for public comment to voice opposition. While the comments proceeded like an organized protest, no coordinating entity was named. Remarks did, however largely echo a narrative disseminated by The Asheville Blade. 

Talking points from the hit piece/exposé stemmed not so much from the obvious concern that, as small businesses–the backbone of the economy–are being forced to close under the weight of the COVID-19 crisis, the commissioners are providing tax relief to a multimillion multinational. Incentives will not be paid until the company meets targets for capital investment and employment stated in the contract. Policy analysts have long maintained political calculations of returns on tax abatement programs ignore utilization of tax-funded services like public safety and education, along with wear and tear on public infrastructure resulting from new business operations and employees. Some speakers did, however, express interest in splitting the millions among local small business owners on the brink instead.

But that was not the point of the protest. The concern was that P&W is a division of Raytheon and that the Asheville plant will likely be producing engines for F-35 fighter jets. From there, callers protested that Raytheon was selling these carriers of deadly weapons to Saudi Arabia, which, in turn, was using them to bomb innocent civilians in Yemen, per graphic news stories. Many spoke eloquently with colorful language; many also gave only their first names, leaving open the possibility that they were seminar callers working a broader territory.

As a small sampling of the earful, Gerry Werhan, president of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, said Raytheon was doing everything his organization was organized to oppose. Aaron characterized P&W as manufacturing “the most sophisticated instruments of human misery for profit …. for the US imperial war machine” and the corporatists as having a “hollow void and desire for profit where their moral compass should be.” She further asked why the commissioners were investing in such a depressed industry whose only course to revitalization might be “more global unrest to justify spending.” Susan said the commissioners were being controlled by corporations, and subsidizing this “leading merchant of death … making a killing off of killing … was extremely nauseating to me.” 

Cynthia asked what had been done by way of environmental impact analyses and how P&W would clean up when they left here for greener pastures, as they had left Connecticut to come here. Rachael Bliss urged, “Let Raytheon pay its own way, like our artists.” And David Putnam asked WWJD and answered he would “not be collaborating with arms dealers and dealing with murder. He’d be chasing the people who are doing that out of the temple.”

Following the string of accusations that they would have blood on their hands, the commissioners appeared unmoved. Chair Brownie Newman took the heat, reading remarks prepared ahead of time in anticipation of the backlash. He, like the other commissioners, said he shared constituents’ concerns, and passed the buck. Calling attention to the flaws of entangling alliances and the military-industrial complex, Newman argued that, as commissioners, it was their responsibility to bring high-paying jobs to the area. It was the federal government’s job, should a relocating employer happen to manufacture tools of war, to shape policy in ways that protect innocent lives. Newman added it wasn’t like the county had a long list of high-wage-paying industrialists lined up to set up operations on that spot.

Commissioner Joe Belcher reflected comments Newman made a couple decades ago. “I don’t like incentives, I never liked doing them, I wish we didn’t do them across the country at all,” said Belcher. He didn’t bother to finish with the worn-out rejoinder about needing to stay competitive with other jurisdictions, but said he thought smaller companies would be starting up in the area as induced economic multipliers.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara said the county had been in negotiations with P&W for fifteen months. She said she supported the tax abatement for the children. She likened this to the county’s investing $10 million in solar panels and supporting local businesses seeking to expand as “one way we help” 46% of the county’s children who are born into poverty. Amanda Edwards advocated for the project as diversifying the local economy away from tourism and making community colleges more relevant. Al Whitesides claimed the incentives would help lift people of color out of generational poverty, Anthony Penland said P&W would provide relief for families that would like to return to a one-job household lifestyle, and Robert Pressley just made a motion to approve the package, which was adopted unanimously.

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